Chicken and waffles, spicy chicken sandwiches, sausage biscuits and pizza. The items on today's school breakfast and lunch lines cater to students' taste buds, but they're healthier than you might think.
Nutrition experts say the federal regulations that rolled out in 2012 were a good start to revamping school nutrition and a long time coming. But dietary standards shouldn’t stop there, and school districts need more support to keep the changes coming.
The “real problem” is asking them to make changes but not giving them enough resources, said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
With childhood obesity on the rise, school meals are a logical place to start to solve the problem, Schwartz said. A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in five school-age children is obese.
By following nutrition guidelines, school districts can help children develop healthier habits at younger ages, said Timikel Sharpe, executive director of school nutrition for the Bibb County district. If they start eating well in preschool, the thinking goes, they'll become healthier teens and adults.
"Schools meals are not what they used to be," said Meredith Potter, school nutrition director for the Houston County district. "There have been big changes over time, but certainly in the last five years. We believe that school nutrition is moving in a positive direction."
The Obama administration’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was nothing radical or extreme but common sense changes, Schwartz said. It caused a stir initially, however, because it showed how antiquated the previous standards were. The new rules called for more whole grains and lean proteins, a gradual reduction of sodium levels and a cap on calories and saturated fats.
"It is 120 percent regulated," Sharpe said. "We are looking out for the health of children. Being able to look at a limited amount of sodium and a limited amount of saturated fats and keeping calories within a limit helps to ... produce a healthier U.S."
For lunch, the calorie requirement is 550-650 for elementary school students, 600-700 for middle and 750-850 for high, according to federal guidelines. About 200 hundred less calories are allotted for breakfast.
“We now have some of the strongest nutrition standards in the world for school meals,” said Juliana Cohen, assistant professor of health sciences at Merrimack College and adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They really provide opportunities for children to have exposure to healthier meals and to learn what a healthy meal looks like.”
Eat your fruits and veggies
Students now are required to take either a fruit or vegetable at mealtime, and that’s based on science, Schwartz said. Research showed that if children had fruits or vegetables on their plates, they usually ate them.
Weekly, a minimum five cups of fruit must be offered to all students for breakfast. For lunch, 2 1/2 cups of fruit and 3 3/4 cups of vegetables must be available to elementary and middle school students; and five cups of fruit and vegetables to high school students, according to federal guidelines. A dark green, red/orange, bean/pea and starchy vegetable must be provided at lunch each day.
Schwartz and her colleagues at the Rudd Center discovered in their 2015 study that the new meal regulations increased fruit consumption among students. It was no surprise that students usually chose a fruit over a vegetable. But when they opted for a vegetable, they usually ate more of it. They ate more of their entrees too.
Cohen said food waste was a problem in schools even before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. However, Schwartz’s study showed that the new standards didn’t lead to more food being thrown away.
Vequita Gore, nutrition manager at Alexander II Magnet School in Bibb County, said she sees a lot of her students eating their fruits and veggies. While some students pitched their orange slices, broccoli or cauliflower and carrot medley during a recent lunch, others were trying them, and a few chose to get large Cobb salads.
Leslie Gross said her first-grader will hardly eat fruit and vegetables at home, let alone at the Academy for Classical Education. However, her son eats broccoli at school and seems to like the lunches there.
The kids are pretty adventurous, Alexander II first-grade teacher Crystal Walker said. She always urges them to try fruits and vegetables and not get peanut butter and jelly every day.
Carissa Rutland’s four children ate school lunches when they first moved to Houston County from Hartford, Connecticut, five years ago. Since then, they all decided to bring their own lunches instead. She said they are used to more fresh vegetable and fruit choices and food options and less menu repetition.
Pass the salt
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act called for sodium levels to be decreased by about 25 percent total for breakfast and 50 percent for lunch by the year 2022. However, a ruling from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last year allowed districts to remain at the 2014 levels, Schwartz said. The Bibb, Houston and Monroe districts have kept their levels at those rates.
Breakfasts can reach 540 mg of sodium for elementary schools, 600 for middle schools and 640 for high schools. The maximum sodium for lunches is 1,230 mg for elementary, 1,360 for middle and 1,420 for high.
Cohen takes issue with maintaining the status quo.
“I really think we should be working toward the final targets for the sodium for school meals,” Cohen said. “We know that children are already consuming too much sodium. The school really needs to be a place to help children consume within the recommended level.”
Schwartz said food production companies are going to have to lower their sodium levels in order for school districts to continue to drop theirs. Schools can’t make everything from scratch, so they have to use processed foods that contain preservatives — and higher levels of sodium.
“I think the public health community will continue to push on this,” Schwartz said. ”You have to do it slowly. You have to get people used to having lower sodium products. I’m pretty positive that we’ll get there.”
Perdue also relaxed the standard for whole grains, so that only half of grains served have to be whole-grain rich. Research shows that children don’t consume enough whole grains, and school meals give them an opportunity to get a healthier meal, Cohen said.
Districts now can apply for waivers on nutrition requirements for foods that are difficult to prepare or aren't meeting student preferences. Houston took an exemption on whole-grain biscuits and rolls. Bibb did it for whole-grain grits. Monroe has a waiver on whole-grain pasta, grits and biscuits, school Nutrition Director Lisa Singley said.
In addition, Perdue allowed schools to start serving 1-percent flavored milk rather than just the skim version.
Amber Moye, whose daughter is in second grade at the Academy for Classical Education in Macon, said she wants to see healthier and less sugary foods offered for breakfast, rather than things like flavored milk, Pop-Tarts and muffins. She also would like other milk options, such as almond milk.
“It’s very important that we don’t have any more rollbacks or delays of the standards, because that could be very harmful to the children,” Cohen said.
Setting the menu
Districts are left to juggle the federal nutrition requirements with costs and students' food preferences. Bibb budgeted almost $19 million, Houston nearly $20 million and Monroe about $3 million for school nutrition for the 2017-18 school year, district representatives said.
School food service directors have a hard job, as they feed some of the pickiest eaters out there, Cohen said. Food always tastes good when you can add a lot of butter, sugar or salt, but it takes innovation, knowledge and talent to make tasty meals when those things aren’t allowed, Schwartz said.
Nutrition directors need extra support — and funding, some would argue — to create good-tasting recipes that meet the guidelines. That’s why some school districts are having workers train with professional chefs now.
The food pairings and menu options in Houston, Bibb and Monroe counties are decided far in advance, with guidance from district dieticians.
It’s a yearlong process for Houston to create its menus, Potter said. The nutrition department evaluates which foods have been well-received and replaces unpopular items with old standards or new things that students have sampled. Whole-grain Belgian waffles and garlic French bread pizza, for example, weren't well-received by Houston students during recent taste testings.
"By allowing students to select the entree and sides they prefer, this reduces food waste. In addition, by collecting student feedback, we are able to create food items that students will enjoy eating and be less likely to throw away,” Potter said. “We don’t want to spend the time or labor or money to prepare a meal that kids don’t want.”
Sharpe said the Bibb district looks at “best-seller” foods and offers a favorite item each day.
The Bibb district has been trying to create more home-style items such as meatloaf and baked chicken. Chicken Parmesan is one new menu item coming to the Bibb district. Houston is adding buffalo chicken pizza next year.
“We want to make sure that meal is something that children like," Sharpe said, "but we also have the responsibility of ensuring that it meets the healthfulness of what the child nutrition program is all about."